NOTE: Before we get into this, I’m going to be talking about sadness quite a bit. I thought it prudent to start with a caveat, of sorts, because there are people who, by their nature, are argumentative at best and simply looking to twist words at worst. So, let me be very clear here: Do not confuse the concepts of sadness and actual depression. I do not believe the two are synonomous or interchangeable with one another. I think that sadness is obviously a characteristic of depression, but I do not wish to assert they are one in the same. I want to be clear in that distinction, because depression is real and has serious implications for those who experience it. To water it down is not serving those who endure depression well. Additionally, I am not encouraging anyone to engage in risky actions/behaviors that could lead to depression. I’m merely wish to assert the point that for any individual who does not experience depression, sadness is a normal part of our lives. To twist the following words would simply be intellectually dishonest.
The second movie we took our now 4-year old son to watch in the theater was the Disney/Pixar film, Inside Out. It’s the charming partial coming-of-age tale of young Riley, a girl from Minnesota, and the 5 characters who make up her emotions: Joy, Anger, Fear, Disgust, and Sadness. Each character with its own personality, often times with hilariously endearing qualities. It’s partial in the sense that we only see but one small step forward in young Riley’s development, as opposed to the full scope of it. It’s a nice little film that we enjoyed as a family.
We also gave this to our kids as a Christmas gift because we, our son included, enjoyed it so much.
And beyond that, I think it’s a film that matters. Truly.
Let me frame it like this: we live in an age where, more and more, the predominant thinking that is pervading our culture is that happiness is the one and only thing we should all experience. I don’t know if we’re living in the post-self-help days, I hope we are, but in going beyond simply bettering ourselves with the help of one of the many generic titles from a given bookstore, we seek happiness and only happiness. There is no room in this life for things like discomfort, inconvenience, suffering, or, dare I say it… sadness. If you’re experiencing one or any combination of them, then you’re doing something wrong. You’ve not followed the right guru, or you’ve not surrounded yourself with people who will only lift you up. Or, maybe you’re not posting enough pithy fauxspirational quotes to your Facebook page. Regardless of pinpointing what you’re lacking, if you’re experiencing anything less than happiness – you’re doing something wrong.
The whole system has been gamed in such a way that we’re conditioned to believe everyone has to change the world. Every experience has to be magical or earth-shattering. Nothing can be ordinary. There is no virtue in the mundane. Dear friend, you’re not sending your positive words out in the way you want them to go… I don’t know what that means, but I read it in a Facebook status once and I almost ritualistically set my laptop on fire.
The reality is this entire line of thinking goes against what is good and true. It goes against true human growth and experience. I applaud the movie makers at Pixar for putting forth a story with that message and sticking to it until the end. This was probably rough because Pixar is headquartered just across the way from San Francisco, a place known for self-help, guru-style philosophies of life.
But the fact is the whole of Inside Out leads us down this path to further discovery of what sadness is, what impacts it has on us, and how it ultimately shapes us for the better.
In the film, Riley’s personality is represented by 5 islands. These are the traits that define Riley as a person. Her love for her family; her dedication to honesty; her love of hockey; love for her friends; and her love of acting goofy. As Riley experiences some significant life-changes, Joy and Sadness are accidentally separated from the controls of Riley’s personality along with the core memories that fuel her personality islands. During their adventure back, all of the islands eventually collapse. Along the way, Joy is seemingly subverted at every pass by Sadness in ways that are equal parts frustrating and humorous. At one point, Joy tries to leave Sadness behind in order to get back to the controls of Riley’s emotions, but fails. In the absence of Joy and Sadness, it is Fear, Disgust, and Anger that are left to try and act like Joy, or act as Joy would, with nearly devastating results. Ultimately, Joy and Sadness get back to the controls and Joy realizes that for Riley to truly be pulled out of her mess of an emotional state, Sadness has to have her day. And she does.
The culminating scene finds Riley disillusioned by her circumstances and truly saddened by what her life has become. Instead of trying to fight it back, or run away from it, she just allows sadness to have that moment. She bears her broken heart to her parents in a moment of complete vulnerability. At the end of her rope, truly scared of what’s going on, she finally finds the voice to share it all. The scene ends with a touching moment where her parents finally understand what Riley is experiencing and healing occurs. This is all made possible because she allowed herself to reconcile her sadness and be vulnerable for a moment with others. No fauxtography, no pithy inspirational quotes, no veneer to otherwise gloss over or obscure the ugly parts of life. Out of that moment of mourning all that had been lost, a new bond is built in their family. New islands that help define Riley are formed.
There are important themes in the movie I want to continue to talk about with our children because I don’t want them to buy into the garbage idea that every day should feel like the best Friday ever. Or that sadness, doubt, vulnerability, or anything other than happiness should reign over their lives. I want them to know that life isn’t always hearts, stars, and butterflies. It’s important they know that to believe such a thing is only cutting their own legs out from under them by ascribing to an impossible standard of living. Ultimately tragedy, loss, heartbreak, or other dire circumstances will knock at our doors, and we can’t avoid them. We have to know how to deal with them, not how to sweep them under the rug with a ridiculous smile on our faces while simultaneously trying to convince ourselves everything is fine. Some of the most defining moments of my life were born out of decisions that left me truly saddened for a season. Those were moments where it seemed like all these safe islands I’d built had fallen apart. Hindsight being 20/20, I realize now how important those moments were for my own personal growth.
Sadness is a part of life, we have to be honest about it. I would argue that it does more damage to try and avoid it than to actually endure it and grow from it. It’s okay to be sad, but, again, I would caution against chasing sadness. We live in an imperfect and broken world, as a result we will encounter sadness. However, we can still flourish after experiencing it and find joy on the other end of our sadness.